Lib Dems accused of cutting county council meetings ‘for ease’
The Liberal Democrats on the county council have been accused of cutting down on committee meetings for “ease” as an internal email suggests the decision was made at least in part to help ensure enough councillors turned up to retain a majority.
The Lib Dems have recently formed a joint administration with Labour and four independent councillors to run Cambridgeshire County Council.
The Lib Dem’s group leader said the committee schedule needs to “recognise the time constraints involved for those who work or have caring responsibilities”.
One of the first changes agreed since taking over from the Conservatives last month has been to reduce the number of service and policy committees from seven to five, and for those committees to meet at minimum quarterly instead of bimonthly, with reserve meetings pencilled in if needed.
An internal email purportedly sent by the Liberal Democrat group leader, councillor Lucy Nethsingha, to party colleagues, references that the then-proposed committee structure would reduce the number of committees but increase the number of councillors attending each one. The message then appears to suggest that the number of times those committees would meet could be reduced to quartely at least in part to help “have the right number of people at every meeting, otherwise the Tories will be able to out vote us”.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands the email was sent to members of other parties at another council by mistake and was not intended to be made public.
Part of the message, which appears to have been sent after the election results and prior to signing the joint administration agreement, says the proposed changes to the committee structure “will mean an awful lot of committee places for our group to fill, and if we are in administration it will be very important that we have the right number of people at every meeting, otherwise the Tories will be able to out vote us. To help with this we are discussing reducing the frequency with which most committees meet, so the plan if [sic] for them to meet quarterly, with the option for more reserve dates if needed”.
The leader of the Conservative group, councillor Steve Count, said it shows that the new committee structure is “based on the availability of the Lib Dem administration’s members, not on what is the best way to run a council” and “for the ease of its administration and not for the benefit of the people of Cambridgeshire”.
He said: “We didn’t have committee meetings for no reason, they were to do valuable work, and to cut them back in this way means that the new administration either is trying to achieve more behind closed doors or is simply not scrutinising it as effectively as they were given the opportunity to when the Conservatives were the administration”.
Cllr Nethsingha did not deny the message’s authenticity when approached by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
“The new administration at Shire Hall has an ambitious programme and I am keen that we ensure we can deliver on that programme reliably and effectively. Ensuring we can get our programme through the council’s committee system is part of ensuring that we can deliver on our goals effectively”, she said in a statement, adding “the Lib Dem, Labour and independent councillors who form the new administration are also more diverse than the previous Conservative administration in terms of age and gender. This diversity brings huge benefits to the council, but we also need to recognise the time constraints involved for those who work or have caring responsibilities.”
Cllr Nethsingha said slimming down the number of committees will “lead to clearer lines of responsibility and less duplication”.
She added: “Cllr Count is entitled to his view of the changes we are making at Cambridgeshire County Council. The resident’s of Cambridgeshire will be able to judge in the coming months and years whether they feel the services run by the council have improved.”
The council has previously said the reduction in the number of committees will save £72,000 in councillor allowances.
Councillors are not paid as full-time employees, and instead receive a basic allowance – in Cambridgeshire County Council’s case about £10,000 a year – with top ups for those taking on more responsibilities.